Stanley Kubrick, the brilliant, eccentric and ground-breaking director of such classic films as “The Killing,” “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange,” died Sunday of a heart attack at his home in Hertfordshire, north of London. He was 70.
The expatriate American, who lived more than half his life in England, made only 13 films in 40 years, including the forthcoming “Eyes Wide Shut.” The Warner Bros. project was highly anticipated, as it’s the first pic from the helmer since 1987 and its lengthy production history was shrouded in secrecy and involved endless rumors about frequent reshoots and major cast changes. The Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film is scheduled for summer release (see separate story).
Starting with his feature debut in 1953, “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick made seven films within 11 years. But in the 20 years between 1968 (“2001”) and 1987 (“Full Metal Jacket”), he directed only five pics — thus making the arrival of each new Kubrick work even more of an event.
He enjoyed an unprecedented agreement with Warner Bros., dating back to the early ’70s, which allowed him virtual carte blanche, and privileges such as final cut — rare even for the most heralded of directors.
Always an innovator
He was always a cinematic innovator: even “The Killing” in 1956, ostensibly a pulp-genre quickie, featured a fragmented time structure that enhanced the narrative suspense. In the 1960s, “Lolita” brought a deft comic touch to the subject of pedophilia, and “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” mocked nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War.
Some detractors dubbed his films bloodless, misanthropic and cold, but that was frequently his intention: Starting with “2001,” which revolutionized film technology, his works explored the slow dehumanization of mankind. Though his film stories spanned decades and genres, they all shared a dark, ironic perspective.
His esteem as a filmmaker was enhanced by his reputation as an idiosyncratic and secretive perfectionist. Kubrick did not like to be photographed and had not given an interview in 20 years.
‘The problems of near genius’
Production designer Ken Adam (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Barry Lyndon”) told Daily Variety on Sunday, “He was brilliant, and without doubt the best director I ever worked with, and he came with all the problems of near genius.” Kubrick was accused of being egocentric, uncompromising and brutal to his actors, sometimes demanding 60-100 takes of scenes. Kirk Douglas, who starred in “Paths of Glory” and “Spartacus,” once called him “a cold bastard.”
On the other hand, Terry Semel, co-chairman and co-CEO of Warner Bros., said on Sunday, “He was a unique and thoroughly satisfying individual with a great sense of humor and an amazing range of passions and interests. I just adored the guy.”
Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman John Calley agreed. “He was one of the few people in my life that I feel was a defining person. His life and his family were thrilling. They lived an artist’s life in the best possible sense. He was completely unique and wise and supportive. An amazing man and an amazing friend.”
Kubrick fought for and received veto rights over where his films would screen; chose when and whether he would screen for studio execs; often cut his own trailers; and rarely ventured outside a 50-mile radius from his home.
One industry titan who was close to him observed, “He really did become a genuine recluse. Dinner with him consisted of sitting in Stanley’s kitchen with his wife and his dogs.”
Kubrick refused to fly, once commenting, “I love airplanes but I don’t like to be in them.”
Adam theorized that was based on an incident when the director was learning to fly in New York. “On his first solo flight, he forgot to switch on the second magneto, which is a flying term, but it caused his plane to stagger into the air, and he just managed to land without crashing. I think it gave him an enormous shock…. I think it was the last time he ever flew in an aircraft.”
Lenser from childhood
Kubrick was born in the Bronx on July 26, 1928. His first love was photography, a childhood hobby that developed into an obsession. In high school, he sold his first photo, of a grieving newsstand man surrounded by headlines announcing the death of President Franklin Roosevelt.
After graduating from William Howard Taft High, he briefly attended City College, leaving to join Look’s photo staff — at the age of 17. But a few years later, he bought a 35mm newsreel camera; with friend Alex Singer, he made a 15-minute documentary about boxer Walter Cartier, “The Day of the Fight.” They sold the $3,800 short to RKO Pathe News for $4,000.
RKO Pathe that year financed another docu, “Flying Padre,” about Reverend Fred Stadtmeuller, who traversed New Mexico in a plane to minister to his flock. He also directed a 1953 short, “The Seafarers.”
Written by Howard Sackler, his first fiction film, the war-themed “Fear and Desire,” was shot in the San Gabriel Mountains for $50,000. Though visually adept, its fable-like quality left most critics cold and confused. His second film, 1955’s “Killer’s Kiss,” was a tight melodrama of revenge. United Artists paid him $75,000 for it and agreed to advance him $100,000 for another “quickie.”
Making a ‘Killing’
With James B. Harris, he formed Harris-Kubrick Films in 1955 and bought rights to Lionel White’s “Clean Break,” about a racetrack robbery. Budgeted at about $300,000 (partly from UA and Harris), “The Killing,” starring Sterling Hayden, was widely praised for its fractured time structure, although it didn’t make back its investment.
“The Killing” caught the eye of MGM production head Dore Schary, who offered Harris-Kubrick a 40-week contract to find the right project. Kubrick chose Humphrey Cobb’s novel “Paths of Glory,” and secured Kirk Douglas to star. Shot on a $850,000 budget, the WWI-era film only broke even, but has since become a model of the anti-war genre.
When Anthony Mann departed “Spartacus,” in 1960, Douglas convinced Kubrick to tackle the $12 million spectacle, to which Kubrick brought a great deal of intimate drama. The film garnered an Oscar for Peter Ustinov as well as Oscars for cinematography and costume design.
Exiting the scene
He worked for a time with Marlon Brando on “One Eyed Jacks” (1961), but ultimately bowed out; Brando himself took the reins of the existential Western. Kubrick’s epiphany at the time was that, to survive the Hollywood system, he had to remove himself from Southern California and prying studio chiefs.
Taking up permanent residence in England, Kubrick chose a project with a decidedly American backdrop, an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The nymphet in her early teens was made a few years older in deference to censorship standards in 1962, but the cast of James Mason, Peter Sellers and Shelley Winters managed to capture the novel’s dark humor. Critical response, however, was mixed at best (though credited with the script, Nabokov initially denounced the adaptation).
His next film, the 1964 release “Dr. Strangelove,” proved to be one of the great black comedies in screen history. The adaptation of the book “Red Alert” was originally to be a faithful, sober-sided adaptation; Kubrick’s novel take resulted in the breakup of his partnership with Harris.
Referring to the director’s perfectionism, designer Adam cited several examples of scenes that pleased everyone except Kubrick. The original ending was a gigantic pie fight, but Kubrick vetoed it at the last minute. “We all ganged up on him and said it was brilliant, but he insisted. It was the pie fight to end all pie fights, but when I saw that ending later, I knew that Stanley had made the right decision. To work with him, one had to be enormously flexible, and not panic. It was a trying, but great experience.”
“Strangelove,” Kubrick, Peter Sellers and the adapted script by Kubrick, Peter George and Terry Southern received Oscar nominations.
‘The ultimate trip’
Kubrick pulled down another Oscar nomination as director in 1968 for “2001” — based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke — a state-of-the-art film that instantly achieved cult status with the ’60s psychedelic culture. Following blah response to a conventional space-travel ad push, the film underwent a promotional about-face, with ads tagging it “the ultimate trip.”
The pic went on to become a classic. Enigmatic and boldly visual, the seminal ’60s film took the science-fiction genre to a new level of intellectual seriousness and technical accomplishment following decades of predominantly cheapie fare.
The pic also would inspire future filmmakers such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Following “2001,” he was pursued by several studios and accepted an unprecedented deal from Warner Bros. and John Calley that allowed him enormous artistic and technical latitude. Kubrick planned to make one of his dream projects, “Napoleon,” but was convinced to postpone the mammoth undertaking to do a more manageable picture.
The prescient “A Clockwork Orange,” based on Anthony Burgess’ novel, was another dark comic venture, a study of casual violence that imagined a future where youth gangs terrorize cities. The highly stylized film once again copped Oscar picture, director and screenplay nominations for Kubrick, and the film was voted the year’s best by the New York Film Critics, with Kubrick picking up the directing prize. It was a major international box office hit.
A period piece
In 1975, Kubrick dropped back into the past, adapting William Makepeace Thackeray’s 18th century-set novel “Barry Lyndon,” shot over the better part of a year with Ryan O’Neal in the lead. Kubrick again picked up picture, director and writing Oscar nominations.
The sumptuously shot film won an Academy Award for John Alcott’s camerawork, but clearly didn’t connect commercially in the U.S. More popular internationally, the expensive period piece took years to recoup its cost.
“Barry Lyndon,” like his next two projects, the 1980 “The Shining” and the ’87 “Full Metal Jacket,” turned out to be more highly praised in later years than at the time of release. Partly a result of the director’s hermetic existence, his films did not always reflect the zeitgeist, with many achieving a certain timelessness. Perhaps as a result, his work seemed to take on greater weight as the years went by, thanks to the quality of his craftsmanship and the universality of his themes.
The “Shining,” starring Jack Nicholson, diverged wildly from the conventional thriller elements of the Stephen King novel, with Kubrick creating a unique and innovative horror film edged with dark humor. It was a worldwide box office success. Though set in the American West, it was filmed in England, and Kubrick directed the opening Oregon helicopter shots via radio hookup and from aerial photographs at his disposal.
It was seven years before Kubrick returned to the screen, this time with the anti-war piece “Full Metal Jacket” (again filmed in England over a long shooting schedule). “Jacket” was different from all other movies on the Vietnam war, and eventually became as definitive and persuasive a statement about the nature of war as his earlier “Paths of Glory.”
For the next decade, Kubrick toyed with several projects, including the WWII piece “Aryan Papers,” and a sci-fi project, “A.I.” (an acronym for artificial intelligence). The former, a tale of refugees, was to star Jodie Foster and Joseph Mazzello, and locations had been chosen in Denmark (the first time Kubrick had ventured outside Great Britain in two decades) prior to a last-minute change of heart that associates said was due to the release of “Schindler’s List.”
Then, in 1995, Kubrick secured Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to star in “Eyes Wide Shut.” The film broke “Lawrence of Arabia’s” record as the major-studio film with the longest shooting schedule; its July 1999 release comes more than a year after its bow was first scheduled.
In 1997, he received the D.W. Griffith award for career achievement from the Directors Guild. In his videotaped acceptance speech, Kubrick said, “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write ‘War and Peace’ in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”
Kubrick was married first to Toba Metz, a former high school classmate, and then to dancer Ruth Sobotka.
He is survived by his wife, actress Suzanne Christiane Harlan — who appeared as the singer at the close of “Paths of Glory” — and his daughters Katharine, Anya and Vivian.
(Michael Fleming and Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)